Saturday, April 11, 2009

Margaret Avison’s Listening: last poems

I have to admit, I’ve not spent a whole lot of time with the work of the late Canadian poet Margaret Avison, despite having her admirers that include John Metcalf, George Bowering, the late bpNichol and Australia’s Jacket magazine, in a rare feature by the journal on a Canadian poet some time back. With the publication of her Listening: last poems (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 2009) this spring, it provides the bittersweet opportunity to open up into her writing, with some pieces finished, and some pieces not. As the “notes and acknowledgements” page reads:

When Margaret Avision died in 2007, she left the almost-completed manuscript of Listening. A few clearly unfinished poems have not been included. “Our ? Kind,” once considered as a title poem, mattered tremendously to Margaret. It was very close to being finished to her satisfaction. According to a note on a piece of scrap paper, she hoped to “anchor [this poem] in the free flow and delicate touch and effective/creative power of Goodness, in creation’s beginning … and ending????” To this poem and others, a few changes (of the sort that experience tell us she would have accepted) have silently been made. Listening was prepared for publication by Stan Dragland and Joan Eichner.
Going through the list of her publications at the front of the collections, I’m amazed at just how prevalent she is on my bookshelf, with many if not most of these publications sitting in some part of my apartment or other, including Winter Sun (1960), The Dumbfounding (1966), sunblue (1978), No Time (1989), Selected Poems (1991), A Kind of Perseverance (1994), Not Yet But Still (1997), Concrete and Wild Carrot (2002), Always Now: The Collected Poems (3 volumes, 2003-2005) and Momentary Dark (2006). This collection of last poems, Listening, is aptly named, and if this book is any indication, Avison was blessed, first and foremost, with a very fine ear (something she shares with another “senior” Canadian poet who deserves more attention, D.G. Jones, who is very much alive and celebrating a selected/collected poems this spring), and centres itself around a fragment of the poem “Soundings,” that writes “Old age excels / in listening.” The last two stanzas, in full, read:

Art has antennae always
in peril of pouncers, yet in-
domitably threading off into a
passing breeze. Art finds us
burrowing through our days, so
unroofs all usual places for
moments, irreversibly.
Old age excels
in listening. Voices sound
down the long corridors. This
opens beyond an unforeseen
gateway. To lift its
magic latch takes quiet
breathing. Curiosity is
unexacting, but expects
no less.

Toronto trees display the full
gamut of greens. These,
not the trees, age
in gold.

When Avison died in Toronto in 2007, she was in the midst of a resurgence of sorts, with a couple of new titles, one of which won the Griffin Prize in 2003, the appearance of her three-volume collected poems, and the Jacket feature, all of which worked to acknowledge the fact that she had been here all along, quietly working. Listening is a lovely small book filled with knowing that still works to ask questions, with even the question marks that exist in some of the titles (making me wonder, as reader, if this was a deliberate mark by the author, or the mark of an unfinished piece). Listening features a kind of soft urgency, a currency of wisdom she knows just when to spend, when to barter against, and just when to gamble. I am intrigued by these poems, again, bittersweet. Not knowing exactly where she might have gone next.

Still Life

The last two daffodils
are dying on my table.
What were once petals grope
for water, can no longer
sip, though they stand in water,
must grope the air for more.
They have transmuted from
flower to scrawny
fingers, an old woman’s in
raggedy silk gloves.

The only future for
a dying flower is
compost-mash: its lingering
memorial, when the first
eggshell dawn
lifts up a new
horizon, all
in stemless daffodils,

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